Don't Touch It; You Don't Know Where It's Been | Newberry

Don't Touch It; You Don't Know Where It's Been

One of the questions I get now and again is “What would you do if someone donated a Gutenberg Bible?”

My answer depends on the sense of humor of the person asking the question. I might say any of the following.

1. “Write a receipt” (My most likely actual response.)

2. “Ask if I should get a cart.” (Gutenberg Bibles are large and heavy.)

3. “Turn the donor over to someone else.” (A curator, the police, almost anybody.)

4. “Ask where he got it.”

That last response, which would more likely be the first move of the person I turned them over to in answer 3, is related to what we call “Provenance”. No, this has nothing to do with the south of France. It is something I get quite often, but in general it doesn’t matter unless the book is reputed to be worth a heap of money,

It works with things besides books. Let’s say you bring me a locket and point out on the back where it says “To Martha from George, Mount Vernon, Christmas, 1776”. Now, if you just want to SHOW it to me, I might inquire after the story of this object. But if you’re trying to sell it to me as something the Father of Our Country gave to the Mother of Our Country around the time he and his men were slipping across the Delaware River, your story becomes essential.

Because I want to know exactly where it’s been every day since that moment in December when you say Martha opened the wrapping paper. And I want paperwork, friend: I want to see the invoice from the estate sale and the invoice from the auction after that, and the little note with forget-me-nots on it that your great-grandpa used when he gave it to your great-grandma. in fact, I wouldn’t mind a sales receipt showing where George got it in the first place.

This not only helps me establish that it may be real (I don’t suppose you printed that big old Bible in your basement, but you could have engraved a locket by yourself), it also establishes that it is legally yours to dispose of. No, sorry: the fact that the last owner doesn’t know it’s missing yet does not give you that right. If I pay a bundle for your wonderful find, and later someone finds it at my place and says “Hey, that looks like the one that was lifted from our museum in 1975”, I will have some explaining to do. And if it does happen to be the Gutenberg Bible that museum lost, I have to give it back, with no chance of a refund unless I tell Guido to get out his violin case and go find you.

As it happens, I do get provenance quite a lot with the book donations. “Yes, that was my mother’s favorite Grace Livingston Hill novel. She had it on the bedside table at our first house…that was up on Dempster, and she kept it right by the bed in the house on Pulaski. It was in the living room when she moved to the Senior Center apartment, and since she died I’ve kept it in the bottom of the china cabinet. Yep, now that bookmark’s the one Father Moore gave her in 1957, when….” Funny to think that in five hundred years someone like me may well pay good money for all that information.

Anyway, add it to your vocabulary list: “Provenance: where you got your Peter Mayle books.” 

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